By Jason Keidel
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For years, the cognoscenti has placed premature postmortems on the Yankees, always looking for that 1965 moment, when age, wage and karma finally catch up to America’s sporting emblem of success or excess, depending on your allegiance And while the 2008 Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since 1993, there was still a strong nucleus in place, which was burnished by the acquisitions of A.J. Burnett, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira.
But this is the first time that comparisons to the ’65 Yanks — sans Yogi Berra, with an aging Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford — seem salient. Las Vegas has stripped their status as American League chalk — their over/under is around 84 wins) — and they’ve become a walking triage.
I’ve gone on the record saying that this team, in the tumult of a stacked AL East, will not make the playoffs. Curtis Granderson and Teixeira are on the shelf to start the season, Derek Jeter’s mortality is more and more evident and Hal Steinbrenner’s newfound frugality crippled Brian Cashman during the offseason. The Yankees let Russell Martin and Nick Swisher walk and, combined with Raul Ibanez and Eric Chavez craving new climes — and you can understand the fan’s apathy over Vernon Wells, Travis Hafner and Lyle Overbay — the Yankees’ ancient algorithm of long-ball baseball has been erased, replaced with an awkward piecemeal of power and speed. That short porch in right is seemingly and suddenly miles away.
The only chance that the Yankees have of assuming their normal playoff perch is if their pitching carries them. And there are myriad variables in their rotation, between age and injury and underwhelming performance. Sabathia is returning from surgery; Andy Pettitte never pitches an entire summer; Hiroki Kuroda is 38; Ivan Nova has bombed since his bombastic assertion that he’s the best pitcher in baseball. And Michael Pineda is, well, Michael Pineda — seemingly fat, fatuous and always hurt.
So it’s time for Phil Hughes to live on more than promise.
I’m not afraid to say that I’m somewhat sick of Hughes. Five years ago he was the most coveted pitching prospect in baseball. And in one of his first starts, in Texas, Hughes took a no-hitter into the sixth inning. Then he came up lame and left the game before we could find out thedis final chapter. It became a microcosm of a maddening career, equal parts potential and perpetual struggle. Like a litany of Yankees, he starts the season on the disabled list. His tentative return date is April 11.
Whether warranted or not, Hughes seems soft, a young man blessed with a divine right arm who has never lived up to the glittering marquee. There’s no doubt that it’s not all his fault, as any Yankee who flies through the farm system and starts for the big league club when barely old enough to drink alcohol will have inordinate expectations dropped on his wide shoulders. But the talent is there. Yet the results aren’t.
Aside from a brilliant half-season during an 18-8 2010, Hughes has been a huge disappointment. Now, nearing 27, with the sheen of youth scrubbed off and the “upside” banner quite tattered, it’s time for Hughes to pitch up to snuff. A good season serves dual purposes. He could help save the Yankees from a free fall while helping his own cause in a contract year.
Hughes was decent last year, going 16-13 in 32 starts with a 4.23 ERA. But he surrendered more hits (196) than innings pitched (191), and with each pedestrian season he gives his employer little reason to keep him. Should Hughes scuff through a similar season, the Yankees will certainly not make him a rich man in 2014, if they offer him a contract at all. Perhaps no player on the Yankees is more on the the spot, at the athletic axis of decent and dominant. Which way Hughes turns could decide this season and many more.
Remember when Joba Chamberlain and Hughes were the twin faces of the future? It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the Yankees’ future seemed as buff as their wallet. Now we don’t know when Jeter or Teixeira will return, or if A-Rod will ever return. And they can’t seem to fill the black hole at backstop. Only Robinson Cano is a certified stud in his prime.
No one says that about Hughes anymore, if they ever did.
If they ever will.
Will Hughes ever put it all together and become a solid top-of-the-rotation starter? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below…